Game Theory: A-list Game composer Andy Brick
Molly Sheridan: I know that you were part of ASCAP‘s film scoring workshop in 1998. Would you say that’s when you were pushed in this commercial direction? What got you going career-wise on this side of music?
Andy Brick: Well, when I graduated from music school I was convinced that I was going to write chamber music for the rest of my life. That was my love in college, but when I started to investigate ways of making a living as a composer, uh, that was not one of the ways. I didn’t really want to go the route of being a teacher part time, and then going for commissions for some of the time, and then maybe having an odd job here or there; I wanted to integrate my career fully into my life. So it seemed to me that film composing was actually the way to go. Right after I graduated from music school I went to a seminar, and there was a panel of established film composers and some music directors, and I had asked the question, “How does one get into the business?” One of the panel members said to me, “Go to your local film school and start writing music for student films.” So I did, and for about three years there I was doing about four or five films a year at NYU. I have a whole arsenal of student films that I did. A couple of them went to Sundance and I got a lot of exposure, but most important I got a demo reel of music that I had for a commercial medium. And when we speak about commercial medium, I’ve actually only done two or three television commercials in my life. Commercial medium pretty much means anything that’s not legit—that’s not for concert or isn’t a commission…something that’s going to be attached to some other media that usually the public will see or buy. So I had a pretty good reel and I saw this ASCAP workshop, so I applied and was selected! I got to take a trip to Hollywood and they provided a nice, I guess it was a 60-piece professional A-list orchestra in the Fox Newman studios, which is one of the great Hollywood studios, and we actually scored scenes from movies that existed. I came back with some really nice cinematic music with live orchestra which was important for me at the time because everything that I had done at that point was small ensemble stuff and I really needed something big in scope to present to the world if I was going to go out and do this. So the ASCAP workshop was instrumental in leading my career. I wouldn’t say it was the reason that I went into film composing; it just sort of helped me to achieve certain goals.
Molly Sheridan: Before we get too far from that break, when you felt that commercial pull as opposed to going the concert hall route. How does that fit together for you now, as an artist and then as a commercial composer? I guess I’ve been thinking of it as a bit like the divide between a graphic designer and a gallery artist. Is that an accurate analogy?
Andy Brick: I think for me it’s come back full circle. My career went very commercial, and I was doing just films and just games for a long time, and then all of the sudden game music became this very hip thing, and orchestral game music right now is very much in vogue. The direction of video game music I think these days is tending to licensed, non-orchestral, pre-existing big name bands, groups we all know and love, and new orchestral underscores by fairly well-established composers in the scene. Orchestral soundtracks in video games have become very popular. For me it’s been kind of ironic because I was asked to conduct the first-ever orchestral concert of Western and Japanese video game music, which was last summer in Leipzig, Germany, and because of that I’ve been able to make this interesting bridge between what we call the legit world of commissions and concerts and performances and the commercial side. So I’ve been able to do both and that’s been really fortunate. It’s been a long road and a somewhat methodically planned road, but I was fortunate in that the pieces came together.
Molly Sheridan: Let’s talk a little bit about the fact that these are works-for-hire and what you’re giving up working in those circumstances.
Andy Brick: Let me give you an example. For composers working in a commercial medium, a website is very important so that if someone is considering your work, before they contact you, they can just go to your website and see what you do, hear your style, and make that initial decision as to whether you are right for their particular job, so it’s important that they have audio examples. There comes a time in a commercial composer’s career when audio on a website is a very difficult issue because a lot of the work that you do, which is work-for-hire, you can’t make public until the game or movie is released and then sometimes even after it is released—since you don’t own it any more, there are restrictions on how you can use it even though you wrote it. So of all the music that I’ve done, I would say about 60 percent of my best stuff I can’t put on the website.
Molly Sheridan: Working with these huge media companies must be something of an overwhelming experience at times as well. I’d image this is quite a different way to work as opposed to being off in solitary in your studio.
Andy Brick: Understandably so. These companies are investing huge amounts of money in these games. The amount of money that they’re talking about is wild, it’s feature film level money, and they have a lot of things that are connected to it including marketing and timing of release. In the case of a certain product that I’m working on right now, I did this fantastic demo for these guys, and I’d love to put it up on my website, I’d love for people to be able to hear it, but I can’t. They make you sign legal documents that pretty much restrict you from saying anything about it, to the point that I can’t tell you the name of this title, which is why I’m speaking so vaguely about it. I can’t tell you the company that’s doing it.
Molly Sheridan: And isn’t there the possibility that if a company solicits your demo, they own that work free and clear?
Andy Brick: Well, it depends on the company, and every company’s restrictions are different. But yes, that has happened where when you do a demo, if the company agrees that you’re going to do it, then you don’t own that demo. Even if you paid to have players and you financed the production, once you sign that non-disclosure agreement, you cannot do anything with that demo.
Molly Sheridan: So, as you’ve said, we’re talking about a lot of money here. I’m curious how that translates into the financing of the music production. What does that buy you in terms of quality of production? I know that for some of these games it bought you the services of an entire orchestra—not something every composer who writes a work for orchestra gets to have access to.
Andy Brick: Right. I get a lot of big orchestras—I had 140 people recently. These are huge orchestras, but they’re being financed by huge companies. Right now, there is…I don’t know if I would say significant, but there’s money, there are budgets for live orchestras in both films and games. I sort of made my inroads because I was a guy who was able to do everything from beginning to end. I was able to do the composition and I was able to orchestrate my own material, which if you’re in the commercial world is a big issue because not every composer knows how to realize his music for full orchestra, but I was able to do that. I was able to do the MIDI demos, which five years ago in the game world, and even in the film world, was very important because a lot of the people who were making the decisions don’t yet have that connection between what the [piano reduction] and the full orchestra sounds like, so you have to give them a mock-up via synthesizers. I was able to do that. And finally, I was able to do all the scoring and notation and the final copying on computer and make my own parts. So A to Z, I was able to take it from the very inception to actually putting the parts in front of the orchestra by myself. And that gave me an inroad and I think that those skills now are required. At a certain point in time, you get other people to help you because time becomes a big issue, but that was a way that I was able to present myself to these companies financing these big orchestras and make myself attractive to them. And then the bottom line is you have to be writing music which is…viable. And what that means varies from project to project, and in games, viable is a pretty big range. There’s some pretty wild stuff out there in the game world.